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Window of opportunity closed — Boks on outside looking in at Six Nations

Window of opportunity closed — Boks on outside looking in at Six Nations
Gael Fickou of France (left) and Josh Adams of Wales in action during the Six Nations rugby match between France and Wales, in Saint-Denis, outside Paris, France, 18 March 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Mohammed Badra)

The 2024 Six Nations starts in two weeks, with South Africa, which has made the transition north at club level, locked out of the international tournament.

For players with both European club and Springbok ambitions, the bad news is that South Africa won’t be included in an expanded Six Nations before 2031, if at all. 

Two years ago it looked certain that South Africa would enter the Six Nations, but the landscape has changed. World Rugby’s introduction of the Nations League has cemented the status quo until 2031 at least. 

In 2023, the World Rugby Council agreed to a new 12-team Nations League starting in 2026. It will feature the Six Nations countries: England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales; the four Rugby Championship teams: Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa; and probably Japan and Fiji.

boks six nations

Ireland’s James Lowe (right) and Italy’s Sebastian Negri in action during the Six Nations Rugby match in Rome on 25 February 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Fabio Frustaci)

France’s Gael Fickou (centre) scores a try during the Six Nations rugby match between France and Scotland in Saint-Denis, outside Paris, France, on 26 February 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Christophe Petit Tesson)

Part of the agreement to make this competition work was ringfencing the Six Nations in terms of participating teams and reducing its length by a week — from seven to six weeks.

That was the death knell for South Africa’s ambitions of fully aligning with the Northern Hemisphere at club and country level — at least until after 2030 when the Nations League will be reviewed. 

Club versus country 

It’s a blow for player welfare too, despite a successful introduction at club level for South African teams. 

boks six nations

Johan Goosen of Vodacom Bulls kicks past Jake Woolmore and Benhard Janse van Rensburg of Bristol Bears during the Investec Champions Cup match at Ashton Gate in Bristol, England, on 13 January 2024. (Photo: Dan Mullan / Getty Images)

The Bulls and Stormers are showing good form in the Investec Champions Cup, the strongest continental rugby tournament on the planet now that Super Rugby is just an extension of the New Zealand domestic game. 

The Sharks, Cheetahs and Lions are in playoff position in the secondary Challenge Cup, and in the United Rugby Championship (URC), the Bulls, Stormers and Lions could all make the playoffs by the end of the campaign.  

The notion that crowds would not attend games during the traditional summer holidays has been debunked with the Stormers pulling in more than 30,000 per game in their last three matches. 

The Bulls and Sharks (despite their poor form on the field in the URC), are still drawing bigger crowds than most Northern Hemisphere clubs. 

And with so many Springboks who won Rugby World Cup 2023 campaigning for foreign clubs, spaces have opened up for South Africa’s next band of players to be exposed to a high level of rugby in Europe, in massively varying conditions. 

In short, the move north looks like a much better proposition for South Africa than staying in a bloated, cumbersome and jetlag-plagued Super Rugby Pacific. 

Teething issues 

That’s not to say there haven’t been some teething issues for South Africa moving north and that it’s perfect. 

Teams flying to the north and back have often travelled via the Middle East, with large rugby players, battered and bruised, crushed into economy class. 

The extremes in weather conditions from one week to the next are also a factor. The oppressive humidity in Durban at this time of the year and the soaring temperatures in the rest of South Africa make it challenging, but not insurmountable.

Additionally, the South African Rugby Union (Saru), is not yet a full shareholder in the URC and European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR), which oversees the Champions and Challenge Cups.

Saru has bought its way into these competitions at a cost of R330-million per season, according to its last annual report. The upside is healthy future dividends when it does become a full member in 2025. 

But the biggest issue for South Africa is player welfare. Put simply, South Africa’s elite Test players who are not based in Japan, have barely had a week off for two years because the Springboks straddle two hemispheres. 

The Boks are still contractually bound to the Rugby Championship, featuring the All Blacks, Wallabies and Pumas, until 2025. That tournament, played in August and September, is usually when Northern Hemisphere players would have an off-season.

Players only involved in the URC and EPCR competitions generally have an eight-week break. Bok players do not. Members of the victorious RWC 2023 squad only had three weeks off after the tournament. 

It’s simply not enough to mentally and physically refresh, which is why players are breaking down.

Props Frans Malherbe and Vincent Koch were both injured at the World Cup and have not turned out at all this season for the Stormers and Sharks, respectively. Hooker Bongi Mbonambi was also injured in the final and will miss the season. 

Six Nations 

How this relates to the Six Nations is obvious. It would make sense for the Boks to be in it so players are on the same timetable as their Northern Hemisphere club rivals. 

Traditionalists though, never liked the idea and the addition of another team into the tournament, which would lengthen the Six Nations. 

South Africa’s move north was also not warmly welcomed by France and England. But Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy were more progressive in their thinking.

The Celtic nations and Italy understood the challenges of including South Africa in the URC and could see some negatives, but they also realised the tremendous potential of having such a powerful rugby country in their competition structures.

The URC has been successful commercially and in terms of viewership and engagement. Since the URC started in 2021, three English clubs have folded due to bankruptcy. 

France and England are slowly coming around to accepting South Africa in the north (the Boks’ success over France and England at last year’s RWC hasn’t helped relations), but they are still reluctant to open the Six Nations to the Boks. 

boks six nations

South Africa captain Siya Kolisi lifts the Webb Ellis trophy after the team won the Rugby World Cup 2023 final against New Zealand in Saint-Denis, France, 28 October 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Christophe Petit Tesson)

They would prefer to see the Rugby Championship moved in the calendar. And that might be the best solution. 

At last year’s World Rugby discussions in Paris, a lot of pressure was applied to New Zealand Rugby (NZR) to move the Rugby Championship into the Six Nations window in February and March.

By doing that, it would allow the Boks to continue in the Rugby Championship while creating a window for players to rest in August and September. 

NZR is loath to move into the Six Nations window though, with good reason. It would have an enormous impact on the already struggling Super Rugby Pacific tournament. 

As it is, Australia can barely field a competitive Wallabies team, so imagine pulling out 30 of their players from the Super Rugby franchises to play in a summer Rugby Championship. 

It would also mean the extraction of a host of All Blacks from the club competition. But it’s something the Northern Hemisphere clubs have long had to contend with when the Six Nations is being played.

Club rugby in Europe does not completely stop during the Six Nations, although there are more bye weekends than usual.

The reality is though, that South African clubs and the Springboks add commercial and viewership value. Saru has no plans, even in the long term, to retreat to Southern Hemisphere club competitions, so something has to give. 

The Rugby Championship looks increasingly unlikely to have any choice but to move into a new window for the sake of global alignment. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Craig Bain says:

    1. Italy are the whipping boys of the 6 nations, and should be moved into a new central/eastern european that would include Portugal, Spain, Georgia and of course Italy
    2. The Springboks in place of Italy would make the Six Nations a significantly better and more exciting tournament, just like the SA franchises have done to the URC
    3. CVC Capital Partners are shareholders in both the URC and the Six Nations
    4. CVC Capital Partners are the private equity guys that have been negotiating to become shareholders of the Springboks, and when the deal goes through, the Boks will be in the Six Nations

    • Steven Burnett says:

      No way France and England want to see the Boks win their annual tournament, not once and definitely not every year. Whilst we are a strong rugby nation, they will keep that shopwindow closed. simple as that. They took the RWC2023 away from us and are pissed off that the Celtics let us into the URC.

    • Steve Davidson says:

      Well said both Craigs! When Craig Ray says “Traditionalists though, never liked the idea and the addition of another team into the tournament, which would lengthen the Six Nations. South Africa’s move north was also not warmly welcomed by France and England” he sums up the eternal problem rugby has had for generations – the poms. Their attempts in the 80s to keep the game amateur were disgraceful, and ever since then their own game has gone metaphorically ‘South’ as CR so rightly says with three premiership teams collapsing shows how useless the ERFU are. And the NZRU aren’t much better. The Boks must get out of the so-called Rugby Championship, and also this Nations League rubbish must be forgotten – the RWC is the major tournament and must be kept as such, not diluted by some ridiculous idea like that.

  • Arthur Lilford says:

    It appears that SA Rugby(Springboks) have been left out in the cold – Why was this allowed to happen – was SA Rugby not invited and or “sleeping” on the job

  • Johan Buys says:

    Any tournament / championship without South Africa and New Zealand will always be regarded as a junior one.

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